Catching the Tape: The Most Underrated Match of All Time?
On This Day in Tennis History is an exhaustively informative 500-page book by Randy Walker that does exactly what it’s say it’s going to do: Tell you everything of note that happened in the history of tennis, from January 1 to December 31. And, yes, that includes the sometimes-day of February 29.
Randy’s book is a fun read for any tennis junkie. It can also be a life-saver for the tennis writer in the off-season, on a day when there’s little new to talk about, and the only end-of-year award that's left to hand out is for Best Pet. (Rusty and Maggie May Murray? Pierre Djokovic? It’s too close for me to call.) Instead, I looked up December 5th in tennis history and found a gem of a match, one that, curiously, I’ve never seen on anyone’s greatest of all time list.
On this day in 1988, Ivan Lendl and Boris Becker played the final of the Masters—now known as the World Tour Finals—at Madison Square Garden in New York. The two of them had faced off in the finals of the event in 1985 and ’86, with Lendl, the world No. 1, beating the teenage Boom Boom in straight sets both times. This time they went to a fifth-set tiebreaker, and produced what was likely the finest contest of their always-contentious rivalry.
Looking at the three highlight clips above, it also seems to me to be an exemplary representation of an underrated era in men’s tennis, one where power had been injected, but the players still used all of the court. The match is a kind of unsung, 1980s-version of the legendary 1972 WCT Final between Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver, which was also decided by a fifth-set breaker. Here are some notes on the 10 or so minutes we see of Ivan and Boris duking it out.
—The video obviously isn’t the clearest, and it’s hard to follow the ball on the epic match point; I kept moving my face closer to my computer screen to try to keep up with it. But it gives the clip a sense of authenticity. It looks old, as if it really is from another era.
One thing you can’t miss is the vibe at the Garden. There’s the old light-blue court, and the noisy audience that looks and feels as if it’s right on top of the players. My favorite part of the first reel is seeing Becker drop his racquet and begin to shadow box when a scuffle breaks out in the stands.
The court is clearly makeshift and temporary, and the atmosphere is pretty much the opposite of the high-toned version of the event staged in London today, where the fans are kept in the dark. Still, the Murray-Federer semifinal from last month had something of the rowdy energy of the old days.
—Lendl's forehand was considered monstrous at the time, and its power helped break open the game. Twenty-four years later, after Gonzalez and Federer and Nadal and del Potro, it doesn’t appear quite as intimidating as it might have at the time. Still, Ivan the Terrible lives up to expectations by using it to try to drill Becker with a passing shot. Overall, Lendl is stiffer and more upright than I remember him, and his serve has more pop.
Lendl also lives up to expectations by sticking to his plans. He rarely serves, at least in the ad court, anywhere but to Becker’s backhand. It was the right play, of course, because Becker didn’t do anything but chip the ball back with his return from that side.
The one-handed backhand of both players is a notable difference from today. Each man could gain control of a point by going after that wing, something you can't do againt a Murray or a Djokovic now. Watching this clip, I started to wonder if the rise of the two-handed backhand is underrated as a factor in making the game more, as we like to say, “physical” or “brutal” today. Speed and stamina aside, that shot alone allows players to defend and return offensively, and gives opponents no good place to start their attack.
—That said, Becker was naturally and persistently aggressive in a way that few players dare to be today. By the fifth set, he was 71 for 105 in approaches to the net. Yet Becker was also a rarity, a true all-court player, someone who served and volleyed the majority of the time, yet could rip with anyone from the baseline and liked to prove—sometimes to his detriment—that he could win from back there. In this sense, Boris seems like a transitional player, part of the long, 40-year progress (or regress) of the men’s game from the net to the baseline. Becker was an ideal mix of the two styles. His game—explosive, daring, but not unpolished or arhythmic—has aged well from a viewing standpoint. Becker is one guy I would like to see match up against today’s best in his prime.
—Sticking with that point, was this, the late 80s and early 90s, the true golden era of modern men’s tennis? At the time, it was seen as a comedown after the high-profile Borg-Mac-Connors days. And aside from Lendl’s argyle shirts, it has never been remembered fondly, or even ironically, for its fashion. It's still the wood racquets and wild hair of the 70s that registers in pop culture.
By 1988 the move away from wood had transformed, and mostly improved, the style and pace of play on the men's side. In the seven-year period from ’81 to ’88, when the pros began to wield bigger frames, the game changed nearly as much as it has in the 25 years since (compare the above clips with the classic Borg-Mac early-80s Wimbledon finals). With Lendl, Becker, Edberg, Agassi, and then Sampras, tennis found an enviable variety of offense and defense, of shotmaking and consistency.
—The case for past greatness, of course, is easy to overstate, and these YouTube highlight clips, where the unforced errors and facepalm moments are edited out, make it even easier. I frankly enjoy seeing Lendl drill the duck-iest of forehands straight into the net here. The press and other old-timers often lionize Lendl and his fellow legends as somehow superior—tougher, smarter, possessed of a grittier wisdom—to the players of today. It's good to be reminded now and then that those legends choked and botched easy shots and made tactical blunders, too. Including, in Lendl’s case, keeping to the game plan too rigidly. Here’s a story that Bill Scanlon, a friend of Lendl’s, tells about the end of this match. (When he says “this” in the first line, he’s talking about Ivan’s habit of switching frames with every ball change):
Personally I felt that Ivan sometimes carried the concept to the extreme. One match stands out. As Ivan played Boris Becker in the Masters final in Madison Square Garden, I sat in Ivan’s box with other friends and family. Late in the final set, Ivan finally broke Boris’s serve for a 6-5 lead. You’d think at that point that maybe he was feeling pretty comfortable with his game—and his racquet. It was time for a ball change, but Ivan was serving for the match in the final set. Imagine my shock as Ivan, during the changeover, actually pulled a fresh racquet out of a cellophane bag with the intent of using it for the sole purpose of serving one game. He lost his serve. He lost the tiebreaker and the Masters title.
—That tiebreaker ends with one of the more amazing match points of all time. After a long rally in which Becker appears to land the ball on the baseline four or five times, he wins it with a net-cord winner. Lendl, a vicious competitor but generally a respectful loser, is gracious in the midst of his disappointment.
Lendl would end up leading their head to head 11-10, but Becker was 5-1 in their meetings at the majors. The following year he would beat Lendl in another five-setter at Wimbledon, and in four sets in the U.S. Open final. The '88 Masters was an underrated match, and a turning point in an underrated rivalry.
A slow day day in tennis, perhaps, but not in tennis history.